Slovenians vote in marriage equality referendum

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More than 1.7 million people are registered to cast their ballots in a referendum on whether to allow same-sex marriage in Slovenia

More than 1.7 million people are registered to cast their ballots in a referendum on whether to allow same-sex marriage in Slovenia (AFP Photo/Jure Makovec)

Ljubljana (Slovenia) (AFP) - Slovenians voted Sunday in a referendum on whether the largely Catholic EU member will become Europe's first ex-communist country to allow same-sex marriage.

More than 1.7 million people were registered to vote on an issue that has stoked heated debate in the former Yugoslav republic, but turnout -- crucial for either side to succeed -- was low.

By 1500 GMT, three hours before polling closed, only 25 percent of voters had cast their ballots. Either side needs the support of at least 20 percent of voters in order to win.

In March, parliament approved legislation redefining marriage as a "union of two" instead of a "union of a man and a woman", granting same-sex couples the same rights as their opposite-sex counterparts, including the right to adopt children.

But opponents immediately launched a campaign to reverse the changes, meaning the legislation never came into force, and no same-sex couples were able to tie the knot.

A group called "Children Are At Stake" managed to gather the 40,000 signatures necessary to force a referendum.

Even Pope Francis has waded in, urging Slovenians to defend traditional family values.

He said last week he encouraged "everyone, especially those with public responsibility, to support the family, a structural reference point for the life of society".

Same-sex marriage has already been legalised in 18 countries, including 13 in Europe. Ireland last May became the first to approve gay marriage through a referendum.

"I voted yes. Love is love, regardless of everything," said a 24-year-old woman called Ida in the southwestern port city of Koper.

Vojko, a pensioner, said he was also in favour of the changes, but argued that putting the matter to a referendum was a waste of public money.

"It should be experts or the government deciding about this. They should not leave it to us," he said.

"This is throwing money away. Of course I'm for it, but if it turns out to be a 'no', the world will laugh at us."

- 'Marriage yes, adoption no' -

The issue has divided the country.

On the wall of a church centre near one polling station, someone had scrawled: "Would you take a homosexual donor's blood to save your child?"

Another pensioner said while gay couples should be given equality as far as marriage was concerned, that should not include the right to adopt children.

"They are people like us, they should be given all rights, but not (the right to adopt) children," said 76-year-old Ema.

"It has to end with a 'no'," she said.

A final opinion poll released by state television on Friday gave the "No" vote 55.5 percent support, with a projected turnout of 46 percent. But other surveys predicted a closer outcome.

If the "No" vote prevails, then the civil code will be changed back, although existing legislation which allows registered civil partnerships but not adoption will remain in force.

This is not the first such referendum on the subject, with Slovenian voters rejecting gay marriage in a 2012 plebiscite.

- Strong traditionalist streak -

Slovenia has long been ahead of its peers, joining the EU in 2004 -- nine years before neighbouring Croatia -- and the eurozone in 2007 as its first ex-communist member, but its society retains a strong traditionalist streak.

President Borut Pahor and Prime Minister Miro Cerar's ruling Modern Centre Party support the "Yes" camp, saying gay marriage would eliminate discrimination and grant equal rights to all citizens.

"At this referendum we're deciding what kind of Slovenia we want to live in," Nika Kovac, a coordinator from the "Cas je Za" (It's time For a Yes) campaign group, told AFP.

"We'll decide whether we want to join the developed world."

Janez Jansa, the former centre-right prime minister from the opposition Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), disagreed.

"Erasing the gender from the marriage (definition) gives ground to human rights' violations against our most precious -- our children," he said.